Sports enthusiast and UCLA biomechanical engineer, Professor Vijay Gupta is getting calls from football helmet makers over a hot new helmet liner after tests showed it could cut concussions about 25 percent. That means it could slash the number of NFL players who in the future develop horrific dementia from routine head slams.
The National Football League is in a slow-building panic, and Gupta's ultra-thin, strong polymer helmet liner, material he first created to bind steel and composites on Navy ships, may provide a way to reduce the internal shock wave that causes these brain injuries. “Bang your head, fall to ground, or two helmets collide, and you generate a shock wave, a pressure wave that compresses brain tissue,” Gupta explains, “and when it hits the other side of the skull it rebounds. On the way back, it pulls apart the brain tissue that has been compressed.” This silent devastation years later leaves pro and college players addled.
Gupta says the liner is so thin that it's unnoticeable, which is extremely exciting to him because he believes sometimes-fussy players will not reject it as a new piece of bothersome equipment.
“Sponsors from helmet manurfactures have already contacted me to test the material,” he tells L.A. Weekly. “They have excitement about the material. They will test it out on their premises and I will be there to oversee it. I wish I could simply take their helmet and put in the material — but there are legal issues, so it has to work a certain way. There's a time lag.”
The incredible thing about the devastation now unfolding among retired NFL champions, NFL lesser-knowns and even former middle school, high school and college football players is that nobody knew they'd been brain-damaged in their youth — and only now are scientists beginning to delve into this hidden, slow-motion devastation.
“The dispute now is over low-level impacts — and can that cause cumulative impacts? Think of how we maintain aircraft and we study so many flights for flaws. We study the aircraft for fatigue because you can break a material by overloading it. That is what happens in building collapse — there is something called fatigue failure, which is loading a building with much less but over time, again and again. And that is what we see in airplanes, so that is why we inspect them for flaws, again and again. That's where all this controversy is centered now in football. There has to be some scientific study similar to the cumulative effects we have seen in materials. I wish there was research, but science is way behind on football. We are not in that zone yet.”
And that's not his field, he's a materials scientists. But Gupta is doing what he can — creating materials to lessen the impact. If a football player is hit with more than 90 Gs of force, Gupta says, his chances of a concussion are greater than 90 percent.
Those are very ugly odds.
Gupta produced the special polymer in his lab in the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, with his students Ninh Le and George Youssef. It's an incredibly strong layer of 2 millimeter material which he lays on top of the normal foam inside of a football helmet.
The team is aimed at slashing football field G forces, thus reducing the impact force on the brain by 15 percent to 20 percent, which in turn results in a 25 percent reduction in the impacts that create concussions.
A serious sports fan — at MIT in 1985-86, he was swept into cheering for the red hot Red Sox, Celtics and Patriots, but he was also a highly competitive squash player — Gupta has also adapted the same thin material for a shock absorber — in running shoes.
He is conducting UCLA human trials in running shoes right now.
“A group of runners will run at least 10 miles a week and we'll get their responses to see if they feel different over a sustained period of time, because we can get all kinds of data, but what we really want to know is 'Does your hip feel better?'”
Here's hoping Professor Gupta's football helmet liner not only works as well in fighting concussions as the UCLA data shows, but that the NFL helmet companies don't need a great deal of time to test it, adapt it to their helmets, and get it onto the players' heads.